Remembering the instigator and flame-keeper of the New York underground film movement of the 1980s.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Nick Zedd. While most people will never have heard of anything he did, let alone seen it, his influence on – and naming of – the New York underground filmmaking scene in the 1980s known as the Cinema of Transgression is as significant a contribution as that of anyone in film history. Zedd was both at the centre of the scene and somewhat removed from it, collaborating with leading lights like Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch but never quite achieving their levels of success or recognition – while some of those working in the Cinema of Transgression moved onwards and upwards – perhaps not becoming ‘mainstream’ in any recognisable way but certainly honing their art and having more success in their chosen fields – Zedd remained defiantly the outsider.
If we are to be honest, part of the reason for this is that Zedd was a somewhat inconsistent filmmaker even by the standards of underground movies shot on 8mm film. His best work – the brutal and bitter Police State, his provocative short Thrust in Me made with Kern and featuring Zedd as a man who comes how and finds his dead girlfriend, also played by Zedd, in the bath and sticks his dick in her mouth, culminating with a spectacular cum-shot – are pretty extraordinary and challenging even now. His lurid feature films They Eat Scum and Geek Maggot Bingo are deliriously crude but intriguing examples of just what could be done with no money and a mad imagination, far removed from the world of gritty black and white nihilism that we often think of the Cinema of Transgression being. But other films like War is Menstrual Envy, Lord of the Cockrings or The Wild World of Lydia Lunch are pretty hard work, indulgent and sloppy. There often seemed to be no defining style to Zedd’s work – while his contemporaries quickly developed a direction and a recognisable visual connection, Zedd’s films seemed a bit all over the place. Certainly, he was never predictable, but he wasn’t the best that the movement had to offer.
But the very fact that there was a Cinema of Transgression is down to Zedd, who took the disparate efforts of people like himself, Kern, Tommy Turner, David Wojnarowicz, Lung Leg and others and gave them an umbrella to come together under. This wasn’t just creating a genre for the sake of it – if you create a movement, then the whole becomes more important than the parts and everyone benefits. Cinema of Transgression screenings, articles and Zedd’s own Manifesto – published in his zine the Underground Film Bulletin – brought strength in numbers and allowed the scene to develop.
Zedd, however, found it hard to move on from what he had created. Perhaps he never really wanted to. But the trouble with movements is that they don’t last forever – what is hip and cool today becomes cliched and overblown tomorrow. Kern probably understood this and began to shift his focus towards music videos and erotic photography; Zedd struggled to move beyond his own legend. Perhaps the closest he came was with The Adventures of Electra Elf, a campy superhero spoof that was unexpectedly wholesome – though too weird ever to not be viewed with suspicion by more conservative viewers – that ran for twenty episodes on public access TV in New York.
But New York by the 2000s was no longer the edgy city that encouraged new art movements. Everything had become too sanitised and too corporate and the art that pretended to be underground was often made by wealthy creators with agents and art dealers who sold their work for huge sums to the sort of people that would never have dreamed of going to a grotty nightclub to see weird 8mm movies projected by a perpetually pissed-off looking goth. Eventually, the outlets for Zedd to show films and make a pittance were gone and he left not just New York but the USA, relocating to Mexico City. He sold his collection of art, films, images and correspondence to New York University’s Fales Library, which was collating an archive of the city’s underground art – something that only happens when a scene is finally over, we might note. In the 2010s, he finally achieved a degree of respectability with screenings at galleries, art events and museums around the world. He turned to painting but never actually stopped making movies. He also attempted to launch a new scene, the Extremist Art Movement – but times had changed too much.
For many people, the Cinema of Transgression was a passing fad but Zedd stuck to his guns for over four decades. His devotion to ‘transgression’ might not have been good for his health or his finances but it did create a collection of curious work that – for better or worse – is entirely his own. died from complications from cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, and hepatitis C on February 27, 2022, aged 63.
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